One Light, One Shot

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I have always been intrigued by the challenge of shooting a scripted film in black and white with no artificial lighting. I came close with “Teacher of the Year,” a feature I shot last year written and directed by Jason Strouse. It tells the story of Mitch Carter (Matt Letscher), a teacher at Truman High School surrounded by eccentric faculty, who wins the California Teacher of the Year Award just before receiving a tempting offer to leave his low paying job. While we did shoot in color, we shot about 75% of the film using only natural and found lighting.

Jason wanted the movie to look like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Waiting for Superman” — two films whose shooting styles could be called “Waiting for a Grip Truck.” ‘Guffman‘ was filmed on Super 16mm, but that wasn’t an option because of our budget. ‘Superman‘ used a Sony PMW-EX3 and a dated 720p HD camera; a Panasonic AJ-HDC27 Varicam which was among the first HD cameras to rival film. The images from the Varicam were closest to what we wanted: not too nice, a little rough yet soft on the faces, and a homemade feeling. We went a step up and used the P2 card version of the camera, the HPX-500. This gave us the same quality images but with a more cost effective and efficient workflow.

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As an ENG shoulder mounted camera, the 500 was a perfect fit for our Cinéma vérité approach, with the action feeling unplanned and the characters often conscious of the camera and interacting with it as though it was another character. To create this illusion of documentary filmmaking, I operated the camera handheld for most of the movie covering multiple scenes in one shot: starting wide, moving in, and panning from person to person to catch their lines. If the action in a scene felt more private, I would keep my distance and use the zoom rather than physically moving closer. It didn’t have to be perfect. Jason wanted it too look unrehearsed and, on a few occasions, he had to tell me to make more “mistakes,” miss more lines, pan to the wrong character, let someone stand up out of the shot and then catch up with him, and other illusions of spontaneity I had to fight against my instincts to achieve.

Most of the film was set at a school and a house. Jason is an English Teacher in real life and we were able to use his workplace as the main location. Some of his students worked as interns on the shoot and it was fun teaching them about filmmaking. We had a camera intern and I taught him how to make marks for the actors, fill out the slate and clap it for each shot. By the end of the shoot, he’d transformed into a great 2nd AC. I invited him to Intern for me on my next project, so he joined me for a week at Universal Studios and Fotokem scouting locations and testing film stock.

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Lighting at the school was almost completely from natural daylight. Windows in the classrooms provided ample soft light and the natural layout of the rooms enabled me to frame out the windows so that I didn’t have to deal with clipped highlights and overexposure. The HPX-500 has little latitude and the badly rendered highlights quickly become posterized and distracting. The one light we used was employed for interviews, a few night interiors and a night-for-day pickup shot in a classroom.

The film is completed and is seeking distribution. You can see a montage of the film by clicking here.